Philippines: The Revival of Federalism

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Philippines: The Revival of Federalism

 by Manuel L. Quezon III


The conquest of the territories that now compose the Philippines was undertaken by the Spanish on a kingdom-by-kingdom basis. And upon getting local royalty to accept Spanish sovereignty, the Spanish then reorganized territory into provinces. At first, the nerve center of these territories was Cebu, and then, it became Manila.

The Americans, in conquering the Philippines, built on what the Spanish had established and created new provinces of their own. Rizal Province is a good example. They formalized local and provincial governments, taking away the participation of the Catholic Church. Again, everything was administered from Manila.

When we successfully negotiated the restoration of our independence, the writers of the 1935 Constitution were concerned with keeping the country together, since the issue of independence would soon be an accomplished fact. They decided they preferred a strong state. And so, our development has led us to being classified as a unitary state, one where there is a strong central government. Perhaps the greatest innovation to the way our country’s been organized was the creation of regions by President Marcos.

This was a way to neutralize the tendency of provincial leaders to resist national interference. Or put another way, to force inward-looking local leaders to somehow work together, at least on a regional basis. Since then, we’ve adopted the concept of autonomous areas, of which the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is a prime example.

The Spanish never thought of federalism; the Americans who lived by it didn’t transplant it here, so where did it come from?

Our revolution began with eight provinces placed under martial law. It spread. We had three wars of independence. First was the Katipunan-led revolution, from 1896-1897. Then there was the Aguinaldo dictatorship from 1898-1899. Both against Spain. And then there was our First Republic’s resistance to American conquest.

It was during the third war of independence, when the Malolos Republic ruled much of Luzon that President Aguinaldo had to try to find a way to include the rest of the archipelago. The Visayan Federal Republic was constituted in Iloilo and had to be convinced to recognize the government in Malolos, which it did. Aguinaldo was less successful in courting the cooperation of the sultan of Sulu.

With the defeat of the First Republic, and with the creation of a strong central government in 1935, thinkers and leaders like Salvador Araneta remained dissatisfied with the setup, and, looking back to what might have been in the 1890s, revived federalism as a way to organize our country in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea has remained interesting to some in the Visayas and of increasing interest to some in Mindanao.

President Arroyo, for one, has been moderately interested in federalism and in 2005 and 2006, expressed support for it. But what’s interesting is that the Senate, which fought constitutional change in 2006, has taken the lead in reviving federalism.

The Senate wants the country to be subdivided into eleven federal states. Where do these proposals leave our regions (17 at present)? Shouldn’t they have provided a basis for new federal states? After all, provinces have evolved a relationship with each other based on the present regions.

One obstacle is that forming new states clashes with the tendency of provincial politicians to protect themselves by gerrymandering smaller and smaller provinces. We have gone from 52 provinces in 1951 to 81 as of 2007. Indonesia and Malaysia haven’t gerrymandered on this scale; Thailand has actually reduced the number of its provinces.

And finally, since we should all follow the money, one big reason federalism is attractive, is that provinces think it’s a way to guarantee they keep more money for themselves. But as former national treasurer Liling Briones recently put it, what these proposals do is add a new layer to our government. We’ve had to live with national and local governments; you’d now have state governments, since existing provinces will be retained within the proposed Federal States.

And this has hair-raising implications for adding to, and not reducing, our government costs.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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